Getting away from the re-remythologising of history

I’ve always thought it curious that our view of New Zealand’s history has always been a process of ‘re-mythologising’ – of discrediting one set of myths and replacing them with another. It happens once a generation.

Close-up of the reconstructed palisades at Otatara, Taradale.
Close-up of the reconstructed palisades at Otatara, Taradale.

When I was a kid, around 1970, my school taught that New Zealand had been settled by two races. Moriori were displaced by Maori, who had arrived in a great single canoe fleet, and who were in turn displaced by the British. This was the supposed ‘truth’ on which kids of my generation were brought up – despite the fact that the ‘two race’ settlement idea had been discredited by anthropologist Henry Devenish Skinner in 1923.

Moriori, in reality, are the people of the Chathams. It has always saddened me that the fantasy of a ‘two race’ settlement persists, to this day, in the disgraceful and ignorant pseudo-history peddled by those who would prefer that Celts had arrived in New Zealand first.

The other myth of the nineteenth century – the ‘great migration’ – persisted into the 1970s, though it was increasingly evident that no such adventure occurred. It was Jeff Simmonds, I think, who first proved the point.

Today we know the ‘great migration’ was another settler-era fantasy, created before the turn of the twentieth century by amateur ethnographer Stephenson Percy Smith, who concocted it by ‘rationalising’ Maori oral traditions into a form that suited the way pakeha of that day preferred to see their world. Settler-age thinkers such as William Colenso, who lived a generation or two before Smith, knew there had never been a great migration. But once popularised in the School Journal, it was all the rage.

The reality is that New Zealand was settled around 1280 AD by Polynesians from the Cook Islands. The first landing was likely on the Wairau bar. No humans had touched the place prior. Others arrived from the Marquesas islands. There were also return journeys. All this stopped during the fifteenth century on the back of the Little Ice Age, leaving New Zealand’s Polynesian colonists isolated. Maori emerged, indigenously in New Zealand, as a development of Polynesian settler culture. There is some evidence that there may, some time later, have been an arrival from Tahiti on the East Coast of the North Island – a point that could explain quite a bit. But it has yet to be proven.

The cover of my next book.
The cover of my brief history of the New Zealand Wars.

The mythologies of ‘two race settlement’ and ‘great migration’ were products of their time – a demonstration of the way that history is re-filtered through contemporary lenses. Even Maori of the day joined the band-wagon; Te Rangi Hiroa, for example, leaped upon the ‘great migration’ concept whole-heartedly, portraying Maori as ‘Vikings of the sunrise’.

Are we more enlightened in the twenty-first century? Of course not. Since the 1980s, New Zealand’s history has been re-written yet again. The so-called ‘revisionists’ have successfully dislodged old settler ideas. But these post-Vietnam baby boomers have also re-shaped our past in the image of their own ideals, the ‘post-colonial’ view that reversed – but which has not transcended – the parameters of settler age thinking. And while some new understandings have emerged, out of it has also come some of the most startling fantasies yet peddled about our past – fantasies that have once again seized the imaginations of particular intellectual groups, and so filtered through to wider society, as if true.

I’ve covered the story in my new book The New Zealand Wars – a brief history. And more besides. It’s time to get clear of the relentless cycle of re-mythologisation. Step one on that path is to understand the process.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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4 thoughts on “Getting away from the re-remythologising of history

  1. Fascinating!! I’ve never known much about New Zealand beyond that it’s a far away dreamworld so fantastical that’ll it’ll make you believe in magic again…suppose I’ll finally learn the truth when I buy your book.

    1. There are places here that have a magical quality about them! But I have to say there are others that are quite mundane, though. For me one of the wonderful parts is our history, into which Britain rushed in the nineteenth century – but which was also entwined, particularly at that time, with that of the US in more ways that most people think or realise these days.

  2. I was always told that history was written by the victor and re-written by whoever was in power at the time.It is nice to know that a few objective historians exist. I truly enjoy hearing about NZ history. Quite fascinating.

    1. This is absolutely the case. Churchill, allegedly, once insisted that history would remember him as a great man, for he would write that history. He did. I have a book in my collection about the process involved in his ‘History of the Second World War’, and more than a little self-justification went into it – mostly addressing the level of executive power he had wielded (the process also underscored how NOT to finalise a book for a publisher…his ‘overtake’ revisions, post-submission of the manuscript, played merry hell with the editorial process). The same is true for any history, really – as I say, here in NZ the whole view has been framed and re-framed with each new generation.

      The problem I’ve had has been when it’s been reduced to personalities. When I published my academic interpretation of the NZ wars in 2006, my only reward from the originator of the prior interpretation, widely acknowledged as NZ’s top historian of this generation, was to be sworn at by him on national radio. My name was mentioned on interview and he immediately got angry. Did he approach me, ever, with whatever his issue was, as a courtesy and opportunity for adult discussion? Uh…no…Just got angry, to the nation. Pretty much par for the course relative to the ethical values of the academic community here, as I’ve experienced them; but what ever became of such simple matters as basic adult courtesy? It’s not hard… Sigh…

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